A Man Cannot Outrun God: Nightmare Alley (2021) - Reviewed

Nightmare Alley (2021) strips way all of the supernatural flora and fauna that are usually present in Guillermo del Toro's work, instead focusing on the horror and evil that lives in the hearts of humanity itself and the way that we sometimes seal our own fate with our actions. 

The film starts out on a mysterious note with a man seemingly disposing of a dead body by burning it and the house it resides in to the ground. He wanders aimlessly afterwards, taking a train to the end of its line and finds work at a traveling carnival. His name is Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) and using his good looks and cordial manners he inserts himself in the carny lifestyle staying with Zeena Krumbein (Toni Collette) and Peter Krumbein (David Strathairn) a husband and wife team who are experts in "mind-reading" and mentalism. 

In reality, mentalism is a highly refined form of showmanship and a keen understanding of human psychology and the power of suggestion. Due to unforeseen circumstances Stanton takes over Peter's mentalism act and initially finds success, but the allure of using his abilities for more nefarious means begins to call to him, to haunt him. Is he who he seems on the surface? Is there something darker lurking underneath?

Kim Morgan's script is absolutely airtight with each piece of dialogue and every single scene in service to the climax and the third act. All of the characters' strengths and weaknesses are accounted for, each a single piece of a fascinating puzzle that culminates in an extremely satisfying full circle narrative. Some might find this meticulous telegraphing tiring, and indeed, the movie does feel its length from time to time, but it is mesmerizing to watch the plot fall forward like a line of dominoes, with the characters unaware of their own doomed fates. In one scene, Peter looks Stanton in the eye and says "Be careful, a man cannot outrun God." and in this case it is true--Del Toro is the god of this universe and he is not merciful.

The cinematography and set-pieces are resplendent with beautiful gothic imagery, full of various shades of green and burnt orange reminiscent of a colorized daguerreotype. Those who love noir films will be at home in the gloomy shadows and hazy, sumptuous indoor locations, and special care was also given to all the costume work and hairstyles. The pacing is languid and the first act feels slightly floaty and a touch unfocused, but after that it marches grimly forward at a good clip.

Bradley Cooper puts in a great, intense performance, toeing the line constantly between being a villain and a man on the edge of having a redemption arc. Cate Blanchett simmers on the screen as Lilith Ritter, an icy cold femme fatale psychiatrist who is either his greatest ally or worst nightmare. Willem Dafoe also has a fun turn as a skeezy "geek wrangler" with a mean streak.

Nightmare Alley might be frustrating for folks looking for a more action-packed thrill ride, but those with a good bit of patience will be richly rewarded with a finely crafted noir drama.

--Michelle Kisner